Rugby Union: Cooke left to count the cost

Paul Trow hears why the former England coach had to make the break
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The Independent Online
AS WEEKS go, Geoff Cooke has known better; seven days ago he was the chief executive of beleaguered Bedford. Even though the club was struggling to hold their place in Allied Dunbar Premiership One following a string of narrow defeats and their owner, the boxing promoter Frank Warren, recently found himself short of funds, Cooke's own future seemed assured.

As the mastermind behind the golden era of English rugby which culminated in two Grand Slams and a World Cup final appearance in the early Nineties, and as a man who commands universal respect within the sport, his services were bound to be in demand if things went pear-shaped at Goldington Road.

Or were they? On Monday, he decided to put that theory to the test and ended his 16-month stay at the club. On Tuesday, he was at London's Cafe Royal for the annual luncheon of the National Coaching Foundation, an organisation which he used to run - his day job during his time as the England manager. And since then he has been waiting for the phone to ring. "I'm taking stock of my situation. I'm 57 and it's not a good age, or a good time of year, to find yourself out of work," said the former physical education teacher. "I've got lots of contacts and I'm starting with a clean sheet.

"I can't say too much about my split with Bedford for legal reasons. I'm personally owed a lot of money and at the end of the day I'm a professional and I expect my contract to be honoured. I can't go on working for people who aren't paying me."

Characteristically, Cooke bears no ill-will towards Warren whose financial crisis has been triggered by a costly legal battle with the American boxing entrepreneur Don King.

"Throughout his involvement with rugby, Frank has always been very committed and he has done his absolute best to honour his commitments, but there's no way that any of us could have foreseen the problems which he is now facing.

"Bedford have a lot to be grateful to Frank for. He took over when the club was languishing in the depths of the Second Division. His involvement enabled them to bring in better players, along with Paul Turner and myself on the coaching and management side, and the club has come up through the ranks. But you're always going to find the going tough when it's your first year in the First Division. It's all been desperately unfortunate."

Rather than blaming Warren, Cooke sees his own problems as a microcosm of the game's overall affliction. "At the moment, rugby is in a fantasy land and its costs don't match up to its income. Even if your business is flourishing, there are not many people who can afford to lose pounds 1.5m a year. I'm sure even someone like Nigel Wray at Saracens is beginning to feel the pinch.

"A club is a fixed item of expenditure but to a large extent you know what your income is going to be from things like corporate backing, merchandising and TV revenue. Gate receipts are only a small part of the overall budget picture. The bottom line is that costs have got to be kept under control, in line with income projections.

"Bedford is doing its best, but it's certainly a struggle to meet all the staff salaries each month. West Hartlepool have just announced cost- cutting measures, but it's not easy to do that. They're letting some players go, guys who perhaps gave up good jobs to become professional. Everyone is under contract and it's difficult to vary the terms unless you renegotiate.

"Some realism has got to come into rugby, but I'm still optimistic about its future. It's a better game than ever for spectators and players, and is an excellent product. It's exciting and great to watch. The World Cup will provide a big boost and we'll see the game more on terrestrial television.

"We have not been helped in recent years by all the arguments among officialdom - that has certainly had a negative impact at a time when we've been trying to get the confidence of local businesses. We need sponsors to create good facilities for spectators. At the moment, the clubs have to hang in there."

This philosophy clearly applies to Cooke on a personal basis, but yesterday's match provided the first serious test of his resolve. "I won't be at the West Hartlepool game but of course I'll be rooting for the players. They've shown terrific spirit and you certainly can't fault their attitude. But I've got to make a clean break. Sports administration has been my life and I'd like to think that I've got a number of strings to my bow. Hopefully, I'll find something which suits my skills." Somehow, it seems unlikely he will have long to wait.

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